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Cold ocean survival

MI researcher co-authors chapter in international publication

Research  |  COASTS

Part of a special feature showcasing Memorial's leadership and expertise in cold ocean and Arctic science, technology and society (COASTS).


By Leslie Earle

For almost 15 years, the Marine Institute’s (MI) Dr. Robert Brown has been studying maritime safety and survival at the Fisheries and Marine Institute.

Now, the research scientist’s work has gone international having just recently co-authored a chapter in the Springer Polar Series.

MI’s Dr. Rob Brown was part of a field study during SARex II last May.
Photo: Submitted

“Our goal was to determine whether gaps exist in IMO Polar Code requirements for life-saving appliances such as life rafts currently approved under the Safety of Life at Sea guidelines,” said Dr. Brown.

“It was an incredible study to be part of and I believe that the work we’ve published will bring many benefits to those who work and travel on ships in polar waters.”

Information gathering

The data was collected during a field exercise, referred to as Svalbard SARex 2016, which took place in April 2016 just north of the island of Svalbard in Norway.

“The information was gathered by a number of researchers, manufacturers, engineers and practitioners, including the Norwegian Coast Guard,” said Dr. Brown. “The team sailed with the Norwegian Coast Guard from the town of Longyearbyen to Wood Fjord in the north of Svalbard.”

Together, the researchers conducted a number of tests to determine the effectiveness of survival equipment, including an inflatable life raft, a totally enclosed lifeboat, marine abandonment immersion suits, tents and sleeping bags (on the ice).

“Spending 30 hours in an inflatable life raft in cold conditions and gale force winds was difficult and eye-opening.” — Dr. Robert Brown

“It was a very insightful series of tests that produced an excellent set of data,” Dr. Brown said.

Ironically, an April snow storm in St. John’s prevented Dr. Brown from being on the ground during the initial field trials, but he did have full access to all the data, video and photos collected, which was helpful in his analysis and writing. He also had the opportunity to further his research during SARex II, which he attended in May 2017.

“It was incredible to experience the first-hand effects of some of what I have been studying for the past decade,” said Dr. Brown. “For example, spending 30 hours in an inflatable life raft in cold conditions and gale force winds was difficult and eye-opening.”

Institute involvement

During the study, the research team collected population demographics for volunteer participants, core body temperature at regular intervals, air temperature inside the craft as well as air quality (oxygen and carbon dioxide levels) and anecdotal observations made by participants.

“On a much larger scale, this study builds upon work that we have carried out with colleagues from the MASSERT (Maritime and Arctic Survival Science and Engineering Research Team) for a number of years,” said Dr. Brown. “In fact, previous work by MI’s Kerri-Ann Ennis was useful in framing the trials results.”

The findings of the study also support the work currently being led by Dr. Matthew Ray and involving Dr. Elizabeth Sanli, Dr. Heather Carnahan, Kerri-Ann Ennis and Dr. Brown to investigate the effect of cold and moisture on sensory and motor function of the hand.

Research results

Findings highlight that currently approved inflatable life rafts are unlikely to provide enough thermal protection for occupants if required to abandon ship in the Arctic.

“While enclosed lifeboats may provide sufficient protection for extended survival in the Arctic, there are issues that need to be overcome, such as provision of sufficient fresh air for inside the craft,” said Dr. Brown.

While this has been a known issue, it has come to the fore at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) since SARex 2016. Dr. Brown is currently working with Transport Canada on a correspondence group at the IMO to improve the regulations so that thermal protection and ventilation needs are suitably addressed.

The findings have been published in Springer Polar Sciences’ The Inter-Connected Arctic, an interdisciplinary series dedicated to research on the Arctic, sub-Arctic and Antarctic regions.

The series provides a broad platform which includes science and humanities and facilitates an exchange of knowledge between various polar science communities. Topics are broad and include climate change impacts, environmental change, polar ecology, governance, health, economics, Indigenous populations, tourism and resource extraction activities.

View the publication here and check out Chapter 26 for Dr. Brown’s work.


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